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On Patriotism and Revolution

U. S. FlagIn a recent post here, Dr. David Alan Black wrote, “The humility of Christ doesn’t grant us permission on this Fourth to call out our fellow Christians for feeling patriotic or to harp about a revolution in 1776 that was probably at odds with Paul’s teaching about submission to civil authority in Romans 13.” In a post that I otherwise agreed with, I found myself wondering if my patriotism and attitude toward the American Revolution were wrong?
When I read Dr. Black’s article, I was editing an article in which I had written about why “I believe that humility, dialogue, and a tolerance for those who disagree, working in a framework that stresses unity rather than division are so important,” and it is in this spirit that I offer up what admittedly may be a rationalization on my part, but is a defense of my views on these two questions.
The question of patriotism is for me the easiest. We all are many things. I am a husband, father, manager, engineer, and author, just to name a few, and in the last few years have been blessed to add grandfather to that list. I do not see any reason patriot cannot also be on this list. For me the issue is not so much a matter of being, or not being, a patriot, but where in your list of labels patriot exists, if it exists at all. In my list of identifying labels the first and most important is Christian. In fact, for me, patriot, while it is there, comes much further down the list.
This is important because if patriot comes at the top of the list, then nothing can challenge it, and it becomes my country right or wrong-type of patriotism, a patriotism that, historically, has been so problematic.
My patriotism is also not a matter of reflex, habit, or just because I grew up in America. In fact, today, the cultural norm is the opposite. Today it is much cooler to be a “citizen of the world.” To be a patriot is frequently difficult as the cultural messages are far more likely to stress the flaws and short comings of the country than the good that it has done. Even one of the leading historians read in schools said in an interview that it would have been better if the country had never existed. Not surprisingly then, one of the key political questions, is whether the country will even remain as it was founded, or should it change to be something significantly different. In many respects, it is the same question faced in the revolution.
Was the revolution wrong? Did it violate “Paul’s teaching about submission to civil authority in Romans 13?” This is nowhere near as easy a question as that of patriotism. On the one hand, if Paul could say what he said in the context of Caesar and Rome, wouldn’t it apply even more so against King George and England? Is Paul’s teaching a universal one that applies in all cases and every situation? Was Bonhoeffer wrong not to submit to Hitler’s government?
These are not easy questions, and in one sense I am tempted to be comforted by the fact that I do need to directly answer them. If the revolution was wrong, the fault lies with those responsible. Today the civil authority I am under is the United States, independent of how it came to be. But, in another sense I do need to answer these questions, and while I do not see this as in any means clear cut, there are several factors that cause me to question how Paul’s teaching really applies in this situation.
The first is that the American revolution was truly unique in many ways, and not just in its success. In fact, I believe it is these differences that led to its success and kept it from falling into the disasters of so many other revolutions most notably the French Revolution and the reign of terror that followed.
While truly out of vogue today, one of these distinctive aspects was the Christian underpinnings of the revolution. While the revolution itself was far from a religious movement, as I detail in my book, Preserving Democracy, the intellectual roots come out of the Great Awakening. While downplayed by the now prevailing secularism, those in the revolution saw God’s hand behind many of the “coincidences” that allowed the revolution to succeed and that even some modern historians have labeled miraculous, though not accepting the theistic implications of the term. (For some examples from a theistic perspective, see The American Miracle, by Michael Medved).
But none of this goes to the heart of Paul’s teaching. Still, even here, there is a unique difference and this difference can be seen in the question faced by those alive at the time: to which civil authority should they submit? When the colonies were settled, they were, for the most part, left to themselves. The thirteen colonies set up governments to rule themselves and these governments were the civil authority under which the colonist lived.
This only started to change following the Seven Years War, as the King began to try and impose his will on the colonies. The civil authorities of the colonies attempted to seek accommodation with the King and it was only when that failed did they declare independence. Independence was not declared by a group of individuals seeking to overthrow the government. It was an act of “the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, [done], in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies.”
This was a situation that did not, and could not, exist in Paul’s Rome. The key question was, must a people who had until then governed themselves, submit to King who had up to that point ignored them. Does the fundamental authority of government exist with the people, or does it reside with whomever happens to be the current King? This was not even a question in Paul’s time, where rulership was based, not on the authority of the people, but on raw power and who had it.
For the colonists, the fundamental authority rested with the people and those who voted to declare Independence were acting as duly empowered representatives of that civil authority, a civil authority that had existed long before the then current dispute with King. Thus, in a very real sense, the “revolutionary” in this situation, i.e., the one who was trying to overthrow the status quo, was not the colonists, but the King.
Ultimately the question of the American Revolution is: does political power derive from the people, or does might make right, and whoever has the power gets to do whatever they want. This is not just an abstract and merely historical question. It is a question that is still with us now more than ever and I do not think Paul’s teaching precludes me from taking a stance on this question.
Elgin Hushbeck, Jr., Engineer, teacher, Christian apologist, and author of Preserving DemocracyWhat is Wrong with Social Justice?, A Short Critique of Climate ChangeChristianity and Secularism, and Evidence for the Bible.

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  1. Henry, I like the way you turned the tables on who was the revolutionary. Very interesting points, and well-reasoned. However, in my view, all this effort to conform to Romans 13 is unnecessary.

    Here’s why. If Romans 13 is taken as normative for all time, then we might have to deal with it in the terms you suggest. But if seen in another light, it is irrelevant to the discussion. Paul, without doubt, believed that Jesus would return, if not in his lifetime, in his generation’s. He therefore counseled his people to “stick it out” in the short term for full relief was just around the corner. So, slaves were to be content, the unmarried should remain unmarried, etc.

    1 Corinthians 7:29-31 “I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

    No wonder Paul would not be concerned with the role of government; Rome would be eliminated soon enough. If that is not convincing, then reread Romans 13 and see how naive his view of the purpose of government is. Your comment on Bonhoeffer and Hitler nailed it!

    Paul’s advice was appropriate given his view of the impending end of history. It is certainly not to be followed today.

    If anyone relies on “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” that is appropriate, because everything belongs to God (Psalm 50), and nothing belongs to Caesar.

    1. Steve,
      While your explanation for why Romans 13 does not apply today might be plausible in the abstract, the problem is that this not the reasoning Paul gives. He certainly could have, but he didn’t. Instead he gives a different rational. Romans 13:1-2 states,
      Every person must be subject to the governing authorities, for no authority exists except by God’s permission. The existing authorities have been established by God, so that whoever resists the authorities opposes what God has established, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. [ISV]
      Thus, in light of the argument I made, the key question is, what was the “governing authorities” in the colonies. Up until the end of the Seven Years Wars, it was the colonial governments. So, when the King tried to change the status quo, was he really the one who “opposes what God has established,” the the one who brought judgement on himself? Given what we know now, this would not be a hard case to make.

      1. Elgin, I believe you have identified a most important point in applying Paul’s advice to the Romans. It’s amusing to me that you characterize my evaluation of Romans 13 as “in the abstract,” when the very verses you quote to back up your point can only be regarded “in the abstract.” Here they are:
        Every person must be subject to the governing authorities, for no authority exists except by God’s permission. The existing authorities have been established by God, so that whoever resists the authorities opposes what God has established, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves.
        If we accept that no authority exists except by God’s permission, then we must accept that Hitler’s Third Reich was permitted by God, and any who resisted it opposed what God has established. We must conclude that Bonhoeffer’s hanging was God’s judgment on him.
        Add to this that church tradition holds that Nero had Peter and Paul executed. Was this also God’s judgment on them?
        This is why I say that Paul’s advice is naïve. If one should respond that governments make mistakes, then the fact that God may have established them is irrelevant. I’m willing to consider that his comments on Roman government were written to the church in Rome which needed to be very discreet to survive. In this sense, it is good advice. They were not to rock the boat in the short term as Rome will soon be replaced at the immanent coming of the Lord. But as for us nearly 2000 years later, it makes no sense.
        None of this, however, obviates in any way your analysis of where the rightful seat of government inhered in the colonies. As I say, you make a very interesting point.

        1. Steve,
          I think you misunderstood what I meant by “in the abstract.” The contrast being made was between the reasoning for Paul’s teaching you suggested, one which leads to the conclusion that it does not apply to today, and the actual reasoning given by Paul. Thus, in this context, “in the abstract” means apart from what Paul said. My point was that if Paul had used the reasoning you suggest, your point would have had validity. The problem is that he gave different reasoning, and thus his teachings, and its applicability should be judged based on the reasoning he gives.
          As for your other comments and questions, that goes to a much deeper and tougher issue, i.e., if we accept that Paul teachings is a valid one to be considered today, how are we to apply that it to specific situations. Remember, I am the one arguing that, even though I accept the validity and applicability of Paul’s teaching for today, I do not think it is a condemnation of the American Revolution.
          I do not consider it an absolute teaching whose applicability must be strictly followed in every situation apart from all other considerations, few biblical teachings are. It is an important teaching to consider, but it is not the only one. Given the general nature of the command, I do believe that the onus is on me to provide a sound reason it does not apply in the situation of the American Revolution, not the other way around.
          While I do accept that, “no authority exists except by God’s permission” I do not believe the conclusions you draw from this are in any way mandated. For example, there is a big leap from “will bring judgment on themselves” to identifying any particular event as the result of God’s judgement, e.g., “Bonhoeffer’s hanging was God’s judgment on him.” One could make the case, but I do not think the conclusion is mandated, and it would not be a case I would make. God’s judgement can take many forms, nor is it even automatic that Bonhoeffer actions were in conflict with God’s will. As the saying goes, hard cases make for bad law, and there are often exceptions and caveats at the extremes.
          Addressing a possible objection, granted one you did not make, Yes I did say that in terms of King George “Given what we know now, that would not be a hard case to make.” But saying that one could make that case, is not quite the same thing as making the case. My point here was not about King George, but a statement that the issue was not clear cut.
          In any event, I do not consider Paul’s teaching in any way naïve, but rather an important and valuable consideration that has too often been ignored, particularly in light of the fact that the American Revolution has been the only really successful revolution, that is, if you define success as a revolution that actually makes things better. While one might consider the French or Russian revolutions “successful” in that they did overthrown the existing government, they were hardly improvements over the governments they replaced. One could make a better case for the Haitian revolution, but again given the current state of Haiti, it is hard to see that as truly successful.

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